Culinary Class 04

Samantha Nester, a senior at Liberty High School, right, cuts a potato during a culinary class for high school students at the Bedford County Parks and Recreation building in Bedford, August 22, 2019.

We’ve all heard the message for decades: Go to college, get a four-year degree and be set for life. The best jobs, the educational establishment has told us, go to those with college degrees.

It’s all bunkum.

Well, not 100 percent bunkum, but enough of a myth that it needs to be addressed every chance we get. The culinary arts program, offered by Bedford County Public Schools at the county’s science and technology center, is helping to play an important role in busting that myth.

A healthy economy is one that values all sorts of jobs and job training. Yes, there are tens of millions of jobs for which a university degree is an absolute requirement — teachers, physicians, scientists, engineers, architects, etc. But there are also tens of millions of jobs that are just as essential to the economy and society that don’t — precision machining, welding, plumbing, HVAC design and installation, building trades, IT support. And we wrongly stigmatize those types of jobs and the people who hold them as less important than someone holding down a “white collar” job in an air-conditioned office.

For decades, schools and parents have pushed children onto the college path under the false illusion that that’s the only way to a “good” job. It may well be for many students, but it’s delusional to think it’s the appropriate path for everyone.

That delusional thinking has created a looming crisis not many folks see coming. The U.S. Department of Labor has warned for years that a retirement wave is building in key technical job sectors. The welders, electricians, plumbers, HVAC designers and machinists who entered the fields in the 1960s or thereabouts are nearing retirement age, and there are too few people in the jobs pipeline to take their place. These are critical jobs in critical fields that pay top dollar and can make for comfortable, middle-class life for folks, but they’re jobs that go unclaimed because society sees them as less important than those that require a college education.

For an example of how public schools today are preparing students for these vocational and technical jobs, both of today and of tomorrow, look no further than Bedford County Public Schools, and in particular its culinary arts program.

Only in its second year, the program is run by Zac Shupe, a professional chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Unlike programs at some other schools that have to share working space with a school cafeteria kitchen, Bedford County’s operates out of a recreated professional kitchen housed at the school division’s science and technology center. The program also stands out in the Central Virginia region as the only one taught by a CIA-trained chef.

Students can earn three college credits toward a degree in culinary arts or hospitality management, in addition to various safety certifications needed in the food service industry, which will give them a leg up on other job applicants.

It’s vocational and technical training programs like Bedford’s that are giving students more career choices after high school. The more the world of work opens up for young people, the healthier and more well-rounded will be the economy that greets them.

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